Poet Laurie Graham talks about understanding our history and its lasting consequences

Laurie Graham
Laurie Graham

Canadian poet Laurie Graham visited York University and read from her book of poetry, Settler Education (2016). “I gave it this title because it was a process of self-education for me. There was a gap in my knowledge of this place I came from.” Graham delivered her reading on Nov. 1 as part of the Canadian Writers in Person series.

Graham’s poems explore the 1885 Plains Cree uprising at Frog Lake, a historical event that took place near where she grew up, but about which she had learned very little from her family, community or school. In a desire to know more about the conditions that led to the death of nine settlers, the hanging of six Cree warriors, the imprisonment of Big Bear and the opening of the Prairies to unfettered settlement, she set out to research the topic by reading history books and going to the archives to look through people’s old diaries. The photographs included in her collection of poems are meant to mirror the collages of the history books she was reading when doing her research.

Travelling on the train across Canada, Graham took stock of this Indigenous land that received so many settlers. That and visiting the places where the massacre and the hanging took place inspired her poems. Most of the places were deserted, and her pictures show that lack of memorialization; her poems are then an attempt at understanding and honouring that history.

Book cover for Settler EducationGraham wrote the first poem for this collection in 2008 and finished the book in 2015. The hardest thing about it, she said, was trying to figure out how to write this kind of thing in a format that does it justice. “I wanted to talk about this in a way that didn’t perpetuate wrongdoing.”

Our colonial history continues to have reverberations into the present. Graham also writes about contemporary scenes of city living and the ways in which Indigenous people today are affected by this violent history.

This collection of poetry asks us to think about how settlers can live on this land ethically, without perpetuating colonial oppression.

Author Helen Humphreys will read from her novel The Evening Chorus on Nov. 15.

Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at leslie@yorku.ca or Professor Gail Vanstone at gailv@yorku.ca. All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus.